The Secret to a Great Strategy

Chess pieces on a board
Your move, strategist.

A great strategy does several things which aren’t obvious to a junior strategist:

  • It takes account of an organization’s power structures, the ones that set direction, make the big decisions, and which need to be engaged for any significant change to happen.
  • It understands what motivates senior decision-makers. Sometimes these motivations are explicit and obvious, such as strategic and unit goals. Sometimes they’re not so obvious, but much more human, such as the need for recognition, security and power.
  • It leverages these motivations, by incorporating them in the strategy, either overtly or more subtly.

This is where a junior strategist will slip up: they’ll treat an organization and the strategy they create as a blank slate. They’ll play the exercise “straight up the middle” by examining the organization’s goals and competitors, drafting a SWOT analysis, and creating an elegant, well-thought-out and ultimately irrelevant document.

Why irrelevant? Because the essence of strategy is change, and change only happens when someone with power and authority wants to make it happen. To get these people to buy in, you have to give back something they care about, something that will motivate them. Just because you’ve got a great idea that everyone else is already doing, doesn’t mean senior decision-makers have to care about it. As a strategist, you need to make these people care, and that means giving back.

A man playing chess

It’s not about how many pieces you hold: it’s what you do with them.

This doesn’t mean your strategy has to be about serving people’s egos. It means that the best ideas in the world won’t happen if they ignore political reality, no matter how eloquently those ideas are communicated. There is no bigger political reality at an organization than the people holding the reigns of power.

That’s why, as you create your strategy, it’s essential to interview not just those holding the reigns of power, but the people who report to them. These are the people who will be able to tell you what truly motivates their bosses, and what they care about. Once you understand that, you can work backward from these motivators to establish what you can do that will not only get the organization where it needs to go, but do so in a way that creates the champions your strategy needs to succeed.

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